HC Deb 16 May 1820 vol 1 cc424-32
Mr. Finlay

said, he held in his hand a petition from the Chamber of Commerce of Glasgow, a body of gentlemen who were highly interested in the commercial prosperity of the country, praying the establishment of a free trade, and the removal of all restrictions upon commercial imports and exports. Upon a subject of such vital importance, he trusted the House would grant him its indulgence for a few moments. The presentation of a similar petition from the merchants of the city of London made it the more necessary that he should say a few words on the present occasion. The petitioners were of opinion, that the distresses of the commercial and manufacturing interests of this country were much increased, if not in a great measure caused by the various restrictions which impeded our imports from and exports to foreign countries. These restrictions having been so long continued in this country, led other nations into a belief that it was to such regulations we owed our prosperity, and thus induced them to, follow our example. The petitioners were of opinion, not only that such restrictions ought to be removed, but that their removal should not be contingent upon the conduct adopted towards us by any other country. It was unnecessary for him to say, that the restrictions of which the petitioners complained had not been enacted by the present administration; but he could not help regretting that government had not availed itself of the many opportunities which offered of removing them. If it should be found that the history of our commercial policy was a tissue of mistakes and false notions, it surely was not too much to express a hope that that policy should be given up, and a permanent system of commercial regulations established in its stead. It would be a cheering consolation and excitement to the commerce of this country, if it was shown that parliament was determined to set its face against those pernicious restrictions by which we had been so long shackled. When on a recent occasion, a free trade was in a great measure established to certain countries, the restrictions with respect to that with China were continued in full force. Now, let the House see the different situations in which a British merchant and an American merchant were placed by this regulation. The Americans were allowed a free trade, the English merchants were debarred from it; they could not trade south of the Cape of Good Hope unless in vessels of a certain tonnage. This of itself was a severe hardship. Such, indeed, were our regulations on this subject, that it was impossible, even had it been intended, to devise any more effectual means of aiding the American to the prejudice of the British merchant. Suppose a British and an American merchant, both in London, to hear at the same time of a favourable market in China for certain British commodities, or elsewhere south of the Cape. Upon such occasions there are two things necessary—secresy and dispatch. The American can charter a ship of 150 or 200 tons burden, freight her with the articles in demand, and sail in a week. But what is the situation of the English merchant? He must first employ counsel, and make himself acquainted with the law on the subject.—Next, he has to apply to the East India Company for a licence for the ship, and another for the supercargo. But as the Company do not grant any licences to supercargoes, but such as return in the ship to England, he has probably to wait a month. He is then informed, that the li- cence cannot be granted, and he of course applies to the board of control. Thus, at the end of six weeks or two months, when it is publicly known that such articles are in demand, he is able to freight a ship, but not one fit for the trade—not one of 200 tons burden, but a ship of at least 350 tons. Here then, after publicity has been given—after an opportunity offers for all who please to enter into such a speculation, he is enabled to forward his vessel at double the expense of the American merchant, and with the disadvantage, too, of being forestalled in the market. He would put it to the House, whether this was not a hardship—whether it was not a drawback upon our commerce which called for redress? He did not mean to propose that the privileges of the India Company should be infringed upon. On a former occasion, he had opposed the granting of certain privileges to that company, but these privileges having been granted, he should be the last man to propose a violation of them. It was not enough to say that the Company did not avail themselves of these privileges, and therefore they should be deprived of them. What he wanted was, to draw the attention of parliament to the subject; let the consent of the Company be obtained, if it could be obtained, for the removal of those restrictions; but in the mean time, there were many points on which the trade of the country could be opened with infinite advantage to its commercial prosperity. There was, for instance, the circuitous trade, and the trade to places not under the control of the India Company, or not traded to by them. It certainly was matter of choice with the India Company, whether or not they would tolerate British merchants to participate in those advantages enjoyed by the Americans; but it was not too much to expect that they would give the former the preference. If the noble lord (Castlereagh) were in his place, he would remind him of what he promised when the Circuitous Trade bill was before the House. The noble lord on that occasion, pledged himself to an inquiry into it on the return of peace.—He should not trouble the House much further on the subject, as he hoped, that it would, at no distant period, be brought more particularly under discussion, to the benefit of the manufactures and commerce of the country. There were yet, however, a few points to which he wished to refer. It was urged, that a free trade was very good in theory, but that it could never be beneficially reduced to practice. He, however, felt convinced, that it could be reduced to practice, at least to a greater extent, and much more beneficially than was contemplated by those gentlemen who opposed it. So convinced was he of this, that he felt surprised it was not taken up and enforced by his majesty's ministers, and carried as far as it was found beneficially practicable. An hon. member had on a former evening pointed out many cases where restrictions could be removed without trenching on the privileges of the India Company, and by which the commerce of the country would be greatly improved. It would be of the greatest advantage if the shipping interest were allowed to import freely all the produce they thought proper from other countries. This would not only benefit our trade, but would also benefit the shipholder. The bonding system was also alluded to on a former occasion. He would be glad to know what disadvantage could arise from a regulation of that system? The true principle upon which it was originally founded, was that of enabling us to import for the purpose of exporting the produce of one country to the country where it was consumed. It was clearly our interest, that what was imported into this country should be imported at as small a charge as possible. He wished also to throw out a suggestion as to the propriety of abandoning duties on the raw material. There were certain articles upon which such a duty operated most injuriously.—There were one or two other points to which he wished to allude. It was of the utmost importance that our revenue laws should be placed on a steady and permanent footing. Extents in aid also was a subject which demanded inquiry. It surely never was the intention of the legislature that a private individual should seize on another's property, to the prejudice of other creditors, under pretence of a debt to the Crown. There was another point which he conceived to be a great impediment to the wealth and commerce of the country, he meant the Usury Laws. Those laws were a great restraint on the proper erriplo3-meht of capital. He was aware that many gentlemen differed widely from him on this subject. But he hoped that an inquiry would take place, and he was sure the House would see the necessity of altering fine existing regulations. The Bankrupt laws also called for a revision; it was impossible that commerce could flourish under the existing bankruptcy regulations. One word more on the subject of a free trade. If it was deemed dangerous at once to remove all restrictions, at least they might be removed on a few articles. He was sure, that if this were done, the competition which it would cause would be of great advantage to the country. There were some of our manufactures of which he would speak with hesitation; but with respect to the cotton manufacture he felt no hesitation in saying, that a removal of all restrictions would be attended with infinite advantage. He wished to see the cottons of all other countries imported here: from what he had seen abroad, he was sure it would be attended with benefit. We had something to learn, and as to any continental markets outselling us to any extent, it was out of the question. He thought a removal of restrictions as to cutlery and hardware would also be of service to both those trades; besides, it would set to other nations an example of what was the only true system of commercial intercourse between nations.—The hon. member, adverting to what was said by Mr. Baring on a former evening, observed, that he differed with that hon. member on two points; first, he did not think that the other nations of Europe, or even that America could more easily recover from its embarrassments than we could. It was certainly true with respect to France, but not with respect to Germany or America, though the debt and taxation of the latter country were trifling compared to ours. Neither did he look so despondingly to our situation as that hon. member did. He was happy to sec our commerce and manufactures reviving, and he hoped in a few months to see them flourish. The hon. member had truly said, that peace and good order were essential to prosperity. The people were by degrees coming back from that delusion and infatuation into which their own folly had plunged them, and which, had they persevered in it, must have worked their destruction. He expected in a short time to see the wages of the labourer such as to afford him those comforts of which he had for a time been deprived. He Would not trouble the House further. He would leave in their hands the petition; it was one which demanded their serious consideration, equally from the character of the petitioners and the importance of the subject of which It treated. If the great man, Adam Smith, whose sentiments the petition contained, had but lived to see his doctrines thus expounded, it must have afforded him inconceivable pleasure.

The petition was brought up and read. On the question that it do he on the table,

Mr. Baring

said, that a petition coming from so great and respectable a body as the Chamber of Commerce of Glasgow, deserved the most favourable attention from that House. Every efficient means ought to be taken to promote their reasonable objects; every consideration was due to their reasonable claims. When he had a few days ago presented a similar petition to that House, from the merchants and traders of London, he moved that it should he on the table, in order to see, in the mean time, what the other great commercial towns would be disposed to do. He did so, because he felt convinced that whatever might be the disposition of parliament, no great practical benefit could be accomplished without the general concurrence of the country at large. His hon. friend who had just presented the petition before them, differed from him, but in very few and inefficient points. The House, he said, must have heard with pleasure from his hon. friend, that some of the principal manufactures which had been for some time depressed, had, at least partially, revived. And he agreed with his hon. friend in thinking, that, however gloomy and unpromising appearances might be, there was yet no serious apprehension (if proper exertions were made) that the, commercial and manufacturing interests of this country would be endangered in any material degree. During the war an extraordinary impulse was given to the manufacturing interests of England—an extensive, but an artificial trade prevailed, which could not be kept up in a time of peace. That state of things must give way to one of a more moderate, but more solid and more natural kind. He concurred with his hon. friend, that if the House would encourage the commerce and manufactures of the country by good laws—by wise and liberal regulations, that they would again behold the revival of commerce and of general prosperity. But it was only by great efforts that such desirable objects could be accomplished; they were not to fall asleep over the state of the country; they were not to suppose, because trade had so long flourished—because things had gone on prosperously for a great length of time, that without any exertions on their part they would revive and flourish. On the contrary, they must be convinced that new and great difficulties had arisen—that the situation of other countries presented serious difficulties to the encouragement of British commerce—and that extraordinary exertions were necessary to meet and to overcome those difficulties. He entirely concurred with his hon. friend in this—that he did not despond with regard to the state of the country; whilst he was willing to admit that the country, as to its commercial and agricultural relations, could not preserve that artificial degree which it held during the war, but must be reduced to a more reasonable standard. When his hon. friend had stated that this country had manufacturing facilities above all other countries, he must yet be convinced that those facilities would be transferred to other nations, should they remain in peace for any considerable time. Those advantages consisted not in cheapness of labour; they consisted in the extent of capital, in the perfect state of machinery, in the enterprising spirit of our people. In those respects we had the start of the other nations of the world. But those advantages would be lost in the course of time, and nothing but the greatest possible attention to the state of our manufacturing and commercial interests—nothing but the most watchful and active exertions, and the wisest laws could preserve them. An hon. gentleman had stated some advantages as belonging to the cotton manufactories; but if the raw materials of that article were subjected to any considerable duty, neither that hon. gentleman, nor the best informed man in that House, could calculate the precise extent of the duty which the manufacturer could bear, so as to be able at the same time to hold a competition with other countries; and to try an experiment of that description would expose him to the utmost danger. He repeated, that he did not anticipate any misfortunes to the commercial interests of the country; he did not anticipate misfortunes, because he had every confidence in the wisdom of that House. He was glad to see that there did not exist any hostility in the shipping interests of the country as to the objects embraced by the petition before them. He had that morning attended a numerous body of the ship-owners, who had met to express their apprehensions of the consequences that would result from the object of the petition being carried into effect to its fullest extent. He had addressed that meeting on several practical points embraced by the petition, and, as it often happened when men explained themselves one to another, he soon found that there was not any great difference between him and the meeting, but that they agreed on every point, with the single exception of the timber-trade. A great concurrence of opinion existed between the ship-owners and the other interests of the country; and with respect to any particular alteration in the navigation laws, that body were anxious to permit the carriage of any articles in foreign bottoms, with this exception, that they should not extend to the produce or growth of India, or of the colonies; because if those articles were merely to be brought across the Channel in British vessels, it would operate to the disadvantage of British shipping. But, with respect to the produce of every part of Europe they had no objection to their importation. The hon. member concluded by saying, that when gentlemen inquired into the particular points they would not find so much difference of opinion, as they first imagined to exist; and he did hope, that in the course of a short time they would be able to view the various interests of this country with liberal feelings, and would be able to apply the means of their revival and prosperity.

Ordered to lie on the table.

Mr. Ellice

presented a petition from certain Woollen Manufacturers of Hawick. He said, that after the discussion which had taken place on the petition presented by the member for Glasgow, and after the observations which had fallen from his hon. friend (Mr. Baring), he was induced to say one or two words on presenting the petition which he held in his hand. As an instance of the advantage which the public derived from the discussions which had taken place in that House, he had now the honour of presenting, for the first time, a petition from a numerous and respectable body of manufacturers, praying to be relieved from the general restrictions which were placed on the trade of the country; they complained of the great distress and difficulties under which they laboured; and were of opinion that the state of things was such as could not long exist, without involving every interest in the country in one common ruin. One mode of affording relief to trade was by removing the numerous restrictions which oppressed it in every quarter. The petition principally went to the repeal of duties on wool, rape and corn, but they had no objection that all the restrictions which affected trade in general should be taken into consideration.

Ordered to lie on the table.